In Bid to Make Bhubaneswar a World Heritage Site, Odisha Govt Destroys Priceless Ancient Structures

Two months’ worth of demolition drives to push through the Ekamra Kshetra Heritage Project, which aims to develop the old town near the 11th century Lingaraj temple, have resulted in the destruction of previously unknown 10th century temples.

Bhubaneswar: The state government of Odisha appears to be unconcerned about the history and heritage of its own regions as it conducts demolition drives in Ekamra Kshetra (Old Town) on the periphery of the 11th century Lingaraj temple as its first step to beautify the area and help put Bhubaneswar on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites.

The Ekamra Kshetra Heritage Project, which had been announced in December 2019 by chief minister Naveen Patnaik, envisaged comprehensive developmental work near the Lingaraj temple, an area that falls under the purview of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Despite objections from the ASI, the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Odisha Bridge Construction Corporation (OBCC) have been conducting demolition drives in the area without permission from the ASI’s director general in New Delhi. The ASI’s Bhubaneswar Circle had asked the state government several times to seek the approval of the ASI’s director general to execute the work within the periphery of the Lingaraj Temple. However, the ASI authorities in Delhi have yet to receive an official letter from the state government on the subject.

“The state government has not taken permission for the development work in the heritage site,” emphasised Arun Malik, superintending archaeologist, ASI Bhubaneswar Circle. “They used to call me for various meetings and after each meeting I told them to submit the project’s master plan to the ASI as they would be working in a prohibited area. But we have not received anything from the state government to date.”

The Ancient Monument and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (AMASRA), 1958, states that a prohibited area comprises up to 100 metres in all directions from a protected monument, while a regulated area comprises up to 200 metres around such monuments.

“Repairs, renovation and new constructions within 300 meters of the protected area are allowed only in extraordinary cases after obtaining a no-objection certificate from the national monument authority or state director of culture,” Malik told The Wire.

ASI officials allege that during the demolition drives, the BMC and OBCC destroyed several archaeological structures of great importance.

“The state government has decided to remove all the encroachments in the area, which is definitely commendable. However, it should have been done in a proper manner without damaging ancient monuments. Unfortunately they have destroyed many archaeological evidences in the process of their demolition drive,” lamented Malik.

Disappointed with the demolition drive at the heritage site, Anil Dhir, a historian and member of INTACH, said, “It is saddening to see the destruction of the heritage site. Many important relics and archaeological materials have been carted away in the dead of night. These demolition drives have been carried out during the night only, so no one can see what they are doing.”

Dhir added: “It is time for citizens to write to the government to stop all work until a heritage committee is created, which should include archaeologists and historians and not just bureaucrats and ministers.”

Jitu Mishra, a Bhubaneswar-based archaeologist and the founder of Sarna Education, said, “Though the state government has to be blamed for taking such a step, the ASI is equally responsible. As the custodian of heritage sites, they could have taken strong steps against the whole drive. During every beautification project of heritage sites, it is mandatory to call for expert opinions. The state government has not involved any archaeologists in this project, which is a big mistake.”

Meanwhile, Dharmendra Pradhan, the Union minister for petroleum and natural gas, has written to Prahlad Singh Patel, the Union minister of culture and tourism, requesting his department to look into the matter and send an expert team from the ASI in Delhi to carry out a detailed study and thorough scientific excavation of Ekamra Khetra.

New finds

On January 27, while carrying out scientific clearance in a two-acre plot of land adjacent to the Suka-Sari temple complex, the ASI discovered what it believes is the base of an ancient temple. The structure was exposed after a demolition drive conducted by the BMC and the OBCC.

“BMC and OBCC workers were removing encroachments as well as digging up the ground to level and beautify it. When we inspected the site, we saw some vital signs that signified the presence of ancient structures in and around the Suka-Sari temples. Immediately we told the BMC and OBCC authorities to stop their work and called our team from the ASI to do the excavation and scientific clearance. Soon we found the floor of a temple which is very much part of the Suka-Sari complex,” Malik told The Wire.

The Suka-Sari temple complex is a protected monument under ASI. The ASI is the nodal agency for the protection and conservation of monuments in the city and is guided chiefly by the AMASRA of 1958 and the amendments made in the same Act in 2010.

“The temple floor was discovered at the north-west corner of Sari Temple. Two other structures have also been partially exposed and we believe these could be the remains of small shrines,” said Malik.

These recent findings now have the archaeologists believing that the Suka-Sari temple complex could have been built in the Panchayatana style, where the main temple is surrounded by four sub-shrines.

“It is an important discovery. Other structures are also being revealed in the eastern side. It is quite possible that there is another temple, a sub-shrine on the fourth corner of the Sari temple. Hence the Suka-Sari temple complex becomes a Panchayatana-style temple complex like the Chitrakarini temples in the vicinity of the Lingaraj temple,” said Malik.

This means that the Suka-Sari temples most probably date to the 10th century AD, earlier than the Lingaraj Temple, since the Panchayatana style of temple construction was mostly in vogue during the Som-Vanshi period.

“Most of the temples in Bhubaneswar were made in the Panchayatana style, so this is not surprising,” said Jitu Mishra. “In the whole old town region, there could be thousands of buried temple remnants. Wherever we dig, we could find something. After all, Bhubaneswar used to be known as Mandira Malini Nagar (city of temples).”

Residents of the old town were surprised by the latest discoveries. “Our family has been staying here for many years and had never heard about another temple near Sari temple. Even my grandfather had no idea. More could be discovered if authorities do proper research. This is our heritage and we should conserve it,” said Sailendra Mishra, a resident of the old town.

The Bhubaneswar Circle of the ASI has sent a letter to the director general of the ASI for permission to excavate the two-acre plot of land near the Suka-Sari temples. “I have proposed to excavate the entire area. If not excavation, at least scientific clearance could be done, so that other adjacent structures may be discovered and conserved. Scientific clearance means we will dig slowly and reveal the structures systematically without causing them damage,” said Malik.

“Once we excavate the area adjacent to the Suka-Sari temples, we will be able to confirm whether it is a Panchayatana style monument or not,” he added.

However, ASI officials allege that despite these recent discoveries, the BMC and the OBCC authorities have been continuing with their work, using JCB machines to level the ground.

Exhorting the state government to cooperate with the ASI to preserve the heritage site, Malik said, “Whatever archaeological findings we are making now should be preserved and not destroyed. After the demolition of encroachments, we have come across many ancient structures which were once hidden. The exposed structures are important and need to be conserved.”

Missing history

The discovery of the temple floor near the Sari temple has had a contradictory impact on ASI officials. While they exult in the discovery itself, there is also despair because the upper portions of the temple were destroyed in the demolition drives and the ASI authorities have not been able to locate the debris from the site, which may contain valuable ancient archaeological remains and sculptures.

“We have found some archaeological remains but tonnes of soil, stones and archaeological remnants have been thrown away by BMC and OBCC. We have no idea where the debris from the site has been dumped. That debris is important as it must contain valuable evidence of ancient structures,” said Malik.

Sushant Kumar Kar, head of excavation wing, ASI, said, “Normally stone debris is kept to identify its importance in relation to the site. This is a priceless loss. We can’t recreate a 1,000-year-old monument. When archeologically important sites are excavated, certain guidelines have to be followed. Unfortunately they have not been followed by the state government. The ASI has written several times to the state government, but our letters have been ignored.”

Locals allege that most of the debris from the heritage site is being dumped in the low-lying areas of Dhuali and Khandagiri.

“We have not seen any debris as they take everything at night. The state government’s beautification plan is a good one, but protecting our heritage is equally important,” said Harekrishna Mohapatra, a resident of the old town.

The Wire contacted Prem Chara Chaudhary, commissioner of the BMC, about the demolition drive and the beautification project, but no response has been received so far.

All images by the author.

Monalisa Patsani is a freelance journalist.